More than 20 years ago I had the privilege of interviewing an elderly Yid, a son of a noted Rebbe who had already been venerated in pre-war Europe for his greatness in avodas Hashem and ahavas Yisrael.
Among the anecdotes he shared with me was one so striking, and so unlike all other stories told about this Gadol, that, before printing this story for the very first time in this column, I decided to verify the story again with a family member.
Since my original interviewee is no longer alive, I contacted his nephew, a grandson of the Rebbe in question.
“This story is 100 percent true, but don’t publish it,” the grandson told me. “Contemporary American readers will never understand it.”
I argued that Hamodia readers were much more intelligent than that. They may have been brought up in a different culture, but are broadminded enough to realize that there is more than one way to look at things.
In the end he reluctantly agreed that I can share the story — as long as I don’t name his grandfather.
The story had occurred sometime in the early 1920s, when my interviewee was still a young boy. One day he came home late from cheder, and his father asked him where he had been.
He answered that his friend Yankel had taught him how to play ball.
“You played with a ball?” the Rebbe asked his son, incredulously.
The boy nodded.
The Rebbe, who rarely uttered a sharp word, proceeded to severely punish his son.
When he told me the story nearly 70 years later, the son — who revered his father — harbored no ill feelings or resentment. He fully understood why his father had seen fit to punish him and fully agreed that he should have known better than to agree to play with a ball.
Though it might be difficult to understand nowadays, for generations some Jewish communities viewed ball playing as a symbol of Hellenism. It represented an alien culture trumping physical strength and agility over spirituality and morality and, therefore, in these communities, this round, seemingly innocuous object was deemed to be impure — something a Torah Jew should try to stay far from.
In recognition of the particular nisyonos facing the Jewish children and teenagers in the United States, some Gedolei Yisrael dropped their opposition to ball playing and some even encouraged it in yeshivos and camps. They saw it as an important form of exercise and a far better alternative to the other popular pastimes. But a handful of mosdos — much to their credit — still prohibit ball playing, and I am grateful that my children attend such a school.
This clearly isn’t something for the broader community to emulate, but the idea that they are still faithfully keeping their mesorah is something for all of us to respect.
My rebbi, Harav Nesanel Quinn, zt”l, longtime menahel of Mesivta Torah Vodaas and camp Ohr Shraga, had no objection to ball playing as a form of exercise.
He did express opposition to the notion of inter-camp games, arguing that the idea of “winning” a game against another camp, complete with the requisite cheering and hollering, was rooted in Hellenistic practice.
“It comes from the Yevanim,” he said.
It was with great reluctance that he allowed talmidim of Ohr Shraga to play ball games against other camps, and only after being told that the talmidim of Ohr Shraga — who spend most of their waking hours learning Torah — rarely won these balls games anyway.
Rav Quinn was baffled, however, at the idea that it was necessary for bachurim — who left the sweltering city for the green grounds of the Catskills — to leave camp grounds for a “trip.”
Now that my own children attend camp, I wonder what type of chinuch message we are sending our youngsters with these weekly trips — whether to other camps or to amusement parks.
How do we expect our children to learn to be satisfied with their lot and be happy with where they are, when after being on camp grounds for barely five days they are already put on buses and taken to another location? The notion that “enjoyment” is linked to traveling and visiting new locations isn’t only erroneous but also has very negative implications for life.
In my conversations with several camp directors, I learned that the primary reason for these trips is “because everyone else does it,” and if one camp would stop, then children would flock to the competition.
If this is so, all it needs is for a general gathering of camp directors and a united approach on the matter. If everyone would agree to drastically cut down on these trips, it would also mean a very significant savings for camps and, ultimately, for parents.